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Undocumented and abused during the holiday season

December 20, 2023
  • Individual Immigration

by Kasey Husk

As the holiday season approaches, many families are preparing for gatherings and getaways with loved ones near and far. It’s meant to be a joyful time of year, but for those who are already unsafe in their homes, it can be a stressful and dangerous time too. More time away from work can mean more time trapped with the person who treats you badly, whether that is your romantic partner, your adult child or even your parent. Coupled with financial and family stresses, this situation can be a pressure cooker that leaves victims just waiting for the next explosion.

At Eagan Immigration, we want to urge any of our clients who are in an abusive situation to make a safety plan this holiday season. Anyone who is in a violent or emotionally, financially or sexually abusive relationship knows that walking away is never as easy as those outside the relationship want to believe. When one partner is an undocumented immigrant, there is an extra layer of challenges that not everyone understands.

Eagan Immigration does. That’s why one of our chief practice areas is Violence Against Women Act (VAWA) Self-Petitions. This less-known area of law that allows undocumented immigrants (male or female) who have an abusive qualifying relative – a lawful permanent resident or U.S. citizen spouse or parent, or an adult U.S. citizen child – to apply for status without help from their qualifying relative. VAWA petitions are powerful because they allow an individual to apply for citizenship based on their qualifying relative’s status as a U.S. citizen or lawful permanent resident without that abusive individual even needing to know. While full approval of a VAWA self-petition is averaging about three years, Eagan has secured work permits and travel documents for clients within six to twelve months on the initial application.

If you are an undocumented individual being abused by your U.S. citizen or LPR spouse or parents, or by your U.S. citizen child, please know that life does not always have to be like this. If your abuser is telling you that there is no escape and no resources available to you because of your status, Eagan Immigration needs you to know they are lying. We also want you to know that we understand breaking away from an abuser, whether they are your child, spouse or parent, is never as simple as those outside the relationship think. Sometimes – particularly when the abuser is your child – it may not even be what you want. Nevertheless, we urge you to check out a resource guide from Eagan Immigration to help you determine how you may be able to break free of abuse without risking deportation.

How can I support an undocumented loved one who I suspect is being abused by  their partner, child or parent?

For those outside of an abusive relationship, it can be hard to understand what is really happening. Perhaps you’ve seen someone’s spouse, child or parent yell at them, steal from them or even hit them. Maybe you’ve only heard about it, or maybe you are only guessing at what is happening behind the scenes. It is hard to know what the right thing to do in that situation, but Eagan Immigration has some advice.

  1. Believe the victim. Abuse is an extremely difficult subject to talk to others about, especially because of the elements of shame that are often prevalent. If someone in your life trusts you enough to talk about what they are going through, believe them. Avoid casting doubt on what the victim is telling you, even if you feel as though what you are hearing is hard to believe. Remember: abusers often seem charming and kind to those outside of their relationship. The same can be true of a 21-year-old college student you’ve always thought as of quiet, polite and studious. It is also vital to understand and to accept that you may not know everything about the situation or how such individuals act when they are alone with their victims. You may have many questions when someone you care about is in a bad relationship, but it is not the victim’s responsibility to satisfy your curiosity or to give your every detail of their story. Some aspects of the abuse may be too painful or too intimate to share, even with you. Be patient, be kind and be supportive.
  2. Remind the victim know abuse is not their fault. “You made me do it!” is the common refrain of the abuser, and it can be hard not to internalize that. Remind your loved one that nothing justifies abuse. The parents of abusive adult children, in particular, often struggle with feelings that they must have done something wrong in raising the child to cause him or her to behave in such an abusive manner. It is important for victims to hear that no matter what the situation, abuse is not OK and not their fault.
  3. Encourage the victim to make a safety plan and seek legal advice. Abuse is not always physical, but in situations where someone is being physically harmed, it is especially important to try to help the victim prepare for a quick exit if the abuser’s violence escalates. Establish a code word that the victim can use if they need you to call the police or help in some way. Maintain regular contact with the victim. Encourage them to reach out to a domestic violence center, where they can find the resources they need to help them if and when they are ready to escape. Getting good legal advice is also really important, especially when there are factors that make someone more vulnerable, like not having legal status in the United States. Eagan Immigration is highly experienced at helping individuals both create a good legal case and come up with a plan to keep them safe while doing so. Provide your loved one with all the information you can, but be mindful of how you do so: their abuser may monitor their modes of communication.
  4. Avoid provoking the abuser. When you learn how badly a loved one is being treated by someone in their life, anger is often the natural reaction. Punishment is, too. However, trying to punish the abuser in some way, either by yelling at them or trying to get them in trouble, can put the victim in danger and make them hesitant to talk to others. For example, banning someone’s spouse or adult child from family events during the holiday season is likely to have the opposite impact that you might hope for. If not permitted to bring their abuser, the victim may not be allowed to attend holidays festivities at all. This can make them more isolated than ever, and solidify the us-versus-them mentality that abusers can use to keep their victim under their sway.
  5. Refrain from judgement. It can be hard to understand why someone does not leave an abusive partner, cut off their abusive adult child, or abandon their abusive parents. Recognize that nothing is ever as simple as “just leave” or “just kick her out.” Financial, practical and emotional concerns can make separating oneself from an abuser much harder than most people realize. When an individual is undocumented, there is another level of fear that can be hard for outsiders to even grasp. Many undocumented abuse victims in mixed-status families believe that their abusers could have them deported, which could mean putting them in danger in their home countries or separating them from their minor children. The stakes are high. It’s best also to try to avoid declaring what you might do in that situation, unless specifically asked. For example, you might say that you would not tolerate your 25-year-old son living in your home, mooching off you and verbally abusing you. Such comments often come off as victim-blaming. A victim might not be emotionally prepared to formally evict their adult child and risk them being homeless. In some cases, the welfare of grandchildren could also be an issue. The point is: you cannot know what you would do without being in that situation. Avoid making judgmental comments that will make the victim fearful of confiding in you or in others.
  6. Call 911 if you witness physical abuse. If someone is hitting your loved one right in front of you, or you know that it is happening, call 911 immediately. While it is important to respect the wishes of the victim, you cannot do so when their life is in immediate danger. Having a police report of the violence, moreover, may help the victim seek protection at a later date. If the victim is undocumented, having a police report may help him or her file an immigration petition that can help them gain status in the United States.
  7. Start a conversation. In some cases, you may only suspect that abuse is happening rather than know for sure. Respect an individual’s right to tell you what’s going on only when they are ready, but do not hesitate to let your loved one know you are concerned about the warning signs you are seeing. Let them know that you are there if they need to talk about anything, and assure them you will be discreet about anything your hear. It’s OK if you do not always know the right thing to say. In this situation, it is more important to listen than it is to talk.

If you or someone you love is undocumented and experiencing abuse, Eagan Immigration can help. Reach out to an immigration specialist today at 202-709-6439 for a free, confidential phone evaluation.